From factory worker in Mexico to restaurant owner in Brooklyn, Uvalda Alvarado has traveled a long way.
The short but sturdy woman doesn't miss a beat. Walking with pride through the door of her Mexican eatery, she notices a refrigerator door slightly ajar.
"Psst," she says, casting a disapproving look toward one of three employees behind the counter. It's immediately clear who's boss.
The small, white-tiled establishment, one of two Alvarado owns, holds one round table, five folding chairs, several bar stools and a shiny new jukebox.
Alvarado, a former illegal immigrant who crossed from Mexico into San Diego 12 years ago, is one of thousands of low-income women nationwide being helped by a program of the New York-based Ms. Foundation.
The 15 projects, funded at least in part through its Collaborative Fund for Women's Economic Development, provide small, low-interest loans to women who otherwise might not find the capital to start or expand a business.
Alvarado, 34, found out about the program through a friend. In less than a year, she has received three loans totaling $9,000 to help along her first business and start another. She has already paid two loans back.
From a poor farming family and schooled only until the sixth grade, Alvarado made her way to Brooklyn in 1980. There she married, had two children and worked in three factories, mostly as a seamstress.
After nine years with a clothing manufacturer, she was laid off. Her husband, a deliveryman, earned only about $100 a week--not enough to support the family.
One day, tired and looking for work, she spied an old food-service truck in a junkyard. Using sign language to communicate with the yard owner, who spoke no Spanish, Alvarado rented the truck for $50 a month.
The idea was to sell Mexican food to Latino factory workers nearby who could not afford a restaurant meal and missed the taste of home.
"I pulled together a dollar here, two dollars there from the grocery money," Alvarado says slowly, emphasizing how difficult it was to scrape together money to pay the rent, buy groceries for her family and keep the business going.
Initially, she cleared just $10 to $15 a day because workers could not see her hidden in the junkyard. "But I kept going because I was thinking, tomorrow I could earn $20, then the next day $25."
She remembers one day the junkyard owner laughed at her and told her she should sell hamburgers and hot dogs instead. She stuck with Mexican food and eventually started making more money. But then, after about six months, the junkyard owner told her to buy the truck for $500 or get out.
"I didn't have the $500," Alvarado says, starting to cry at the memory.
When her brother heard what had happened, he bought her the truck, using money he had saved for a vacation in Florida, she says, wiping tears from her face.
Back in business, Alvarado moved to a more visible location at a busy intersection, where she earned enough to cover her food bills, the $250 rent for the spot and a weekly wage of $200 for herself and her cousin.
After about a year, she thought about expanding. She found a small, dark garage, rented it for $750 a month and with the help of family and friends turned it into her light, airy eatery on Brooklyn's Harrison street.
During the week, Antojitos Mexicanos feeds tacos, tostadas and other fare to about 25 people a day, but on weekends there are lines out the door and cars double-parked. Alvarado says she pulls in about $8,000 a month in sales.
She turned to a Collaborative-funded program called Accion New York last year when she needed to buy a refrigerator and ventilation system for the restaurant. Accion gave her the three loans totaling $9,000 at a 16% annual interest rate, and in seven months she had paid back $5,000.
The last loan, for $4,000, was used to open Antojitos Mexicanos 2, her second restaurant, on Feb. 1 in Brooklyn.
The loans have taught her responsibility and opened doors she never thought would be cracked.
"Before, I couldn't get a loan," Alvarado says, proudly looking around at the glass-door refrigerator filled with Mexican soft drinks, the vase of carnations on the counter. "Now people treat me with respect."
Her children--now four--have a baby-sitter and are no longer shuttled among friends and day-care centers, as they were when she worked in factories.
The only hitch is her husband, who believes that wives should stay home. At one point, he told her, "The business or me."
"I told him I'd take the business because I knew he couldn't support me," she says, her voice rising but a slow smile creeping across her face.
Alvarado's husband decided to stay, although he still objects to the eateries and refuses to work with her, spending his days chopping vegetables in a nearby restaurant.
Alvarado says she would like to return someday to her hometown, Guerreros, where "the women live off their husbands and do nothing." There she'd like to start a factory to teach the women to make clothes.
"I want to show them how to become independent," Alvarado says.